Redefining the marketplace

Clayton Christensen's coined the term 'disruptive technology' - his insight was that disruptive technologies never overtake their predecessors. What they do instead is overtake the needs of their predecessor's marketplace.

ManagementSpeak: Are there other options?

Translation: I don't understand the option you just explained.

--But IS Survivalist Buddy Ackerman understood what was said perfectly.

Neologisms and Polonium 210 have something in common. Both have a half life of less than six months.

In the case of Polonium 210, it's the radioactivity that declines. In the case of a new and useful word, it's adherence to the original definition. Just as radioactive substances eventually decay into inert, dull elements such as lead, so neologisms decay into inert, dull meanings.

This is the sad fate of the term "disruptive technology". Coined by Clayton Christensen in his groundbreaking The Innovator's Dilemma to describe tools and techniques that disrupt and ultimately redefine marketplaces, it has deteriorated, now referring to any new technology that might achieve marketplace success.

It's a shame because the concept is endangered along with proper use of the term. Take wireless LANs -- potentially disruptive in the original sense.

A disruptive technology isn't, at first, a useful replacement for the older technology from which it emerged. Christensen's original case study looked at disk technologies: Winchester drives couldn't replace mainframe DASD (IBMese for "disk"); 5.25in hard drives couldn't replace Winchesters and so on. Instead, each had to find new markets and uses where they incubated and improved.

Christensen's insight was that disruptive technologies never do overtake their predecessors. What they do instead is overtake the needs of their predecessor's marketplace. For example, 5.25in hard drives never exceeded Winchester drives in capacity or performance but did eventually overtake the needs of the minicomputer marketplace, which Winchester drives dominated. When they did, Winchester drives ceased to have any marketplace at all.

Which brings us back to wireless LANs. Commodity 100Mbit/s ethernet outperforms the most optimistic performance improvement possible for wireless LANs -- the 2000% performance increase that modem technology achieved. It's simple: if wireless LANs reach, for example, 1Gbit/s, just add 99 more wires and you've achieved cheap parity (actually, much more than parity because wired ethernet bandwidth is switched and wireless bandwidth is shared).

So wireless LANs have to incubate where wired LANs can't go: airports, coffee shops and home. Then there's a self-serving favourite of mine -- your facility, as a way to connect consultants to your network without jeopardising security, by hooking cheap wireless hubs to a VLAN channel outside your firewall.

Incubated in niches such as these, wireless LAN technology will improve in performance. To be truly disruptive, though, it will eventually have to overtake the needs of the wireless marketplace. I have my doubts.

But don't let that stop you from the VLAN use. I'd really like something faster than a modem connection.

Please?

Lewis is president of IT Catalysts. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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